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In the fight

When the Waldo Canyon Fire raced down Queenís Canyon and into the Mountain Shadows neighborhood, the Falcon Fire Protection District was one of many agencies that joined forces with the Colorado Springs Fire Department to battle the blaze.ìFalcon members, both paid and reserve, dropped whatever they were doing and responded immediately when the fire escalated and moved into the city of Colorado Springs on Tuesday, June 26,î said FFPD Chief Trent Harwig. ìThey were shocked by the destruction taking place in Mountain Shadows when they arrived, but engaged the fire with drive and determination. They remained in the fight for the next four days. I could not be prouder of them.”FFPD personnel performed a variety of duties. Some firefighters deployed to the front lines and were actively involved in efforts to save homes. Others patrolled the perimeter of the fire to extinguish spot fires caused by airborne embers.Some FFPD firefighters also backfilled empty city fire stations to maintain emergency coverage for Colorado Springs. Harwig and Battalion Chief Cory Galicia worked at the incident command post, where fire commanders developed strategies and tactics.Retired Colorado Springs firefighter and newly-elected FFPD board member Greg Heule, who spends his summers deployed to wildfires with federal incident management teams, was the public information officer for the Waldo Canyon fire.FFPD personnel dedicated almost 700 hours to the Waldo Canyon Fire.Throughout the incident, the FFPD remained fully staffed and ready to respond to residentsí needs. ìThe commitment by Falcon was simply amazing, both in supporting the fire efforts and maintaining district coverage,î Harwig said. ìThis was an all-hands incident, where every member of the organization was supporting the fire or ensuring coverage.îThe battleFFPD Lt. Sean Tafoya and firefighter Cody Thomson were among those on the front lines as the fire tore through the Mountain Shadows neighborhood. Responding with one of FFPDís Type 6 wildland trucks, their crew was assigned to a task force of Colorado Springs fire department engines and brush trucks. The task force initially extinguished spot fires in the Rockrimmon area and later performed structure protection in the vicinity of Flying W Ranch Road ñ right in the heart of the destruction.ìIt was a firestorm,î Tafoya said. ìEverywhere we looked, it was on fire. Everything. Sheds, homes, trees, cars, mailbox posts. It was the closest thing you could get to a war zone if youíre not in the military.î Thomson summed it up in one word: ìSurreal.îTo maximize available equipment, personnel and water supply, firefighters were instructed to triage structures; which meant bypassing anything burning that was more than halfway gone to focus on protecting homes that still had a chance. ìI never thought in my career that Iíd have to drive by a house that was on fire and then not do anything about it,î Thomson said. ìIt was really humbling.îThe firefighters did everything they could to save homes. ìWe put out grass fires,î Tafoya said. ìWe put out shed fires and the backs of homes that were on fire. We were removing lawn chairs, barbecue grills, propane tanks, woodpiles ñ anything that would burn that was up against the house. We took down portions of fences. We saw crews taking down (partially burned and smoldering) decks with chainsaws.îAll the while, firefighters faced multiple hazards beyond the fire itself. Tafoya recalled exploding propane tanks and jets of blue flame from ruptured gas meters. He likened the intense heat to being inside an oven. ìIf you saw news footage of how fast the fire was moving through there, it was absolutely brutal,î he said.They worked through the night extinguishing hot spots and making sure no sparks or embers ignited surviving structures. Thomson described a moment when he glanced up at the hillside overlooking Mountain Shadows. ìWe were in a cul-de-sac, and everything around us was on fire, the whole mountainside was on fire, just glowing like little Christmas trees all over,î he said. He said crews were frustrated they couldnít save more houses. ìIt stinks, because so many people lost their homes up there, and there was only so much you could do at that time.îThe chiefís viewHarwig was out of town when the Waldo Canyon Fire rolled into Colorado Springs. Galicia alerted Harwig to the situation unfolding on the cityís northwest side and told him the city had requested additional firefighting resources. The chief authorized an immediate call back of off-duty and reserve personnel to staff Falconís fire stations, and to deploy apparatus and crews to the fire.Harwig recalled seeing televised coverage of the fire. ìI watched the images on TV that night, in shock at the power of Mother Nature, just as most of the nation did.î He returned to Falcon the next morning to continue coordinating whatever assistance the city needed.The importance of wildfire mitigationAs the residents of the 346 homes that perished in the fire begin to rebuild their lives and community, firefighters are learning from their experiences with the fire.Perhaps the biggest lesson from the Waldo Canyon Fire is the validation of wildfire mitigation practices. ìInterface mitigation is not just a theory, it is necessary for structure protection and survival during a wildland interface event,î Harwig said.ìI have toured the remains of Mountain Shadows and it is evident that the building materials used in the interface make a difference. Class A roofing is a must. If you have the old shake shingle roof, you need to get it replaced. Stucco, brick and other noncombustible exteriors make a huge difference. Decks made of noncombustible materials that are kept clean of pine needles or debris. Above all, proper mitigation, including defensible space is a must.îCounty-approved land development codes and FFPD district-approved fire codes that address wildland interface mitigation are often met with resistance. However, the FFPD, along with neighboring jurisdictions such as the Black Forest and Wescott fire protection districts, have been persistent in enforcing the requirements. All three districts include homes built in heavily forested areas that have the potential for a major wildfire disaster like the Waldo Canyon Fire.ìWe need to remain committed in our local wildland mitigation and code enforcement efforts as we certainly never want this type of destruction in the forested areas of the Falcon Fire Protection District,î Harwig said.The FFPD will work one-on-one with residents and business owners to improve wildfire mitigation on their properties. Firefighters will visit the property and identify areas of improvement. Informational packets on mitigation are also available. Call 495-4050 to set up an appointment.Editorís note: FFPD firefighters would like to send a heartfelt ìthank you!î for the support shown to them by district residents during the Waldo Canyon Fire ñ and every day.

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